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Friday 30 October 2015

Au contraire there is a strong moral argument to keep mining coal

Once again this week in the lead up to the Paris Climate change conference next month Climate Change advocates have released a letter signed by 61 notables including Bernie Fraser and Tim Flannery declaring ;-

"We, the undersigned, urge you to put coal exports on the agenda at the 2015 Paris COP21 climate summit and to help the world's governments negotiate a global moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions, as called for by President Anote Tong of the Republic of Kiribati, and Pacific Island nations," - SMH  Pressure mounts on Malcolm Turnbull over coal

Underlying this latest missive is the argument raised by Josh Frydenberg defending coal mining on moral grounds, and the everpresent push by the Greens, and others, to stop coal mining in Australia.

There are compelling arguments to the contrary

Consider these; - 
  • If Australia were to stop exports of high quality thermal coal, no country would stop using coal, they would simply replace Australia's output by imports from other countries. So the total emissions would not change and there would be no reduction in global warming. As Turnbull noted ;- 
“If Australia were to stop all of its coal exports it would … not reduce global emissions one iota,” The Australian - Malcolm Turnbull repels anti-mines push with coal hard fact 
  • Coal is today a vital part of the worlds energy mix and will remain so for decades. 
 "The latest Report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that by 2040, coal will surpass oil to become the most consumed fuel in the region, and grow at 4.6 per cent per annum over the same period." 
Minerals Council of Australia -Coal will remain key part of energy mix
  • Coal is helping to raise the living standards of the poorest people of the world. Restricting the access to coal would prevent these people increasing their standard of living. 
"Nearly half the world's population has limited or no access to electricity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 18 per cent of the world's population have no access to electricity at all and 38 per cent are dependent on wood, crop residues and animal waste as their main cooking and heating fuels." 

Climate change is hotting up, excuse the pun. All manner of interest group are sprouting half-baked solutions. The elimination of coal is just one of them. Low lying Pacific Islands face an existential threat with predicted rises in sea levels. So their agitation for urgent action is understandable. However their call would be better directed to demanding compensation for the damage their countries suffer due to the actions of the large emitters (See my earlier post Seeking a fair GHG reduction target - Part 4: Propositions for consensus which cover a suggested CC Compensation Fund). 
Nonsensical claims to put a moratorium on a resource which is vital to the world's poor is not only impractical, such calls damage the credibility if those making them.

Monday 26 October 2015

The King is dead, long live the King!

"The King is dead"! A declaration not quite appropriate for the successful coup that saw our PM Tony Abbott replaced by Malcolm Turnbull just a few short weeks ago. In days of yore, the death of a monarch saw power transferred instantaneously to his or her heir with the declaration "The King is dead, long live the King". While this is literally true only for monarchs, the imperative to have no gap in leadership is just as true for all forms of government. So it was that a party room ballot saw Abbot replaced by Turnbull; one leader gone, another anointed immediately in his place.

The various aspects of the demise of TA and indeed my view of it have been covered not only by my multiple posts on the subject, ( see  More Media Musings , Media are part of the problemSome media accepting some blame ) but also by virtually every single political commentator.

So why revisit this?

Yes "the King is dead", but is it time to declare the "Long live the King"?

It was an unseemly end

Like many Right-leaning voters I have been an Abbott supporter. He was a strong, capable and successful opposition leader who guided the LNP from the wilderness of opposition to win the 2013 election.

Despite this success we cannot dispute that he has failed as a Prime Minister. Successful Prime Ministers last more than one term, let alone 2/3 of a term with their own party dispatching them, and to the general acclaim of much of the electorate.  No doubt he has been responsible for many significant successes which will benefit Australia for decades to come, but a fair assessment must conclude he has failed as a Prime minister.

Failed for a number of reasons; some within his control and some not.

He made some serious errors of judgement such as; -
  • failure to adjust to the reality of a hostile senate which required real-negotiation and compromise to ensure the government could govern,
  • failure to replace poor performers; Hockey should have gone after his failed first budget, Bronwyn Bishop should never have been appointed as speaker, but even afterwards she should have been jettisoned much earlier,
  • failures of reading and aligning with his own supporters; who could fathom his re-introduction of knights and dames, or his sticking to Peta Credlin in the face of direct and indirect feedback from his front and backbench.
Others were not within his control; -
  • a hostile media that would attack and ridicule him personally and find fault with any of his policies while ignoring his successes. Think, 'winks' and 'flags' for example.
  • internal dissent from nervous back-benchers and ministers in the face of poor polls,
  • an undercover adversary vying for his job, working with a team of supporters undermining from within, back-grounding journalists and leaking cabinet discussion, all actively encouraged by a partisan media.

So it came to pass...

The coup when it came was quick and brutal.

Despite the rhetoric of many LNP MPs and of course Abbott when attacking the Labour party for their disposal of multiple leaders in their first term, the unthinkable had happened. The LNP had done what it claimed it would never do. The undercover-adversary, the person who had most to gain, and had been most active in undermining Abbot was elected the leader by 10 votes.

A bruised party remains

But all that is now history. Turnbull has taken the throne to the resounding acclaim of his own supporters, the general acclaim of the media, the cautious acclaim of the Labour party, and the somewhat measured acceptance by LNP supporters.

Abbott supporters are bruised and shaken. Dismayed that their party could not have engineered a transfer of leadership without the secret, underhand deals, the white-anting, the conspiracy. In short, in a more respectable way. I guess that is more my view, as some LNP supporters who happened to support Turnbull feel it doesn't matter how it was done as long as we now have a savior. Mmm. Often it is those who like the outcome who ignore the ethics of the means.

Many are waiting to see

I am one of those who are waiting to see how this pans out. I have been unashamedly concerned both about the means by which the change was orchestrated and of the man who has been chosen to lead.

Without doubt Turnbull is a slick and smooth operator. With an affable smile and a relaxed communication style, he has the intellect and ability to explain complex policy positions. He presents as an inclusive professional leader who at least seems to represent everybody. In short he presents as a great 'package', he looks the part of a modern Prime Minister.

However, I also recall that the last time he was leader of the LNP, he lost the support of his party's colleagues. He tried to move them into policy directions without acknowledging their positions. When he could not convince by argument alone he became assertive and aggressive and tried to bully opponents to conform to his views. His policy positions were not supported by his own party which among other things led to his replacement.

The man looks the same as last time, but with the experience of his unsuccessful term as opposition leader and the passing of 5 years has the leopard changed its spots?

The early signs are not bad

Despite the manner in which he gained his position, it is hard to see where PM Turnbull has made other than minor errors. No doubt the fawning media has helped. Given their hard work in getting him selected the media is providing an extended honeymoon period to ensure their protege succeeds Long overdue they have turned their attention to the ALP whose leader is coming up short; short of policies, short of the communication skills required in a leader and perhaps by the testimonies in the TURC also short of ethical standards.

These have no doubt helped Turnbull which by all accounts is still his honeymoon period, but it has not been all without some tests;-
  • he has faced the press and explain the reasons for the change in leaders. This was a major problem for Julia Gillard and tainted her Prime Ministership. Turnbull has successfully avoided the gossipy internal questions by simply not engaging them and the press has, for the time being at least,  moved onto other pastures. 
  • he has addressed the Climate Change issue, where the electorate knows his personal views are out of step with the policies of his government. Yet he defended the government's policies with aplomb, indeed far better than he did when he was only a minister (hrrrumph!)
  • he has managed the passing of the stalled ChFTA by negotiating a deal with the ALP conceding some compromises getting agreement and passing this important legislation
  • on terrorism he has initiated a new path, with closer engagement with the Muslim Leadership. This is still early days but we have seen some in the community taking a public stance against the terrorists. This was not a faultless performance however. His earlier announcements were very wishy-washy, but he came back quite well in clarifying the country's position.  (I think not well enough really - but I will leave that commentary to another time)
  • On same sex marriage, he has waved away the trap by Warren Entsch to etch away at the current government policy and managed to keep re-state the existing policy of his government for a plebiscite after the next election with legislation to follow thereafter.
Most importantly he has resisted distinguishing his policies/government from that of Abbott. On the contrary he has defended them far more effectively than he had when he was 'just' a minister in the Abbott government... that's a sobering reflection and a reminder of how he attained his position.

Still Turnbull argues he is a changed man having learned much from his loss of leadership in 2010, and that now he is a more inclusive leader.

I guess we will all see, these are still early days. 

Some visions of the future

The leader has changed. The media are holding off. Even the ABC is seemingly more balanced with pieces on heretofore taboo subjects such as terrorism, corrupt Unions and ALP leadership. The polls have improved. Turnbull's personal popularity is sky high especially when compared to Shorten, who remains very unpopular. Even more importantly the two party preferred has the LNP ahead for the first time in almost 2 years. Without doubt the political mood has changed.

Turnbull has taken to the airwaves with confidence. His vision for economic growth through innovation has been widely reported He is slowly, purposefully, engaging all interest groups, opening up dialogue and inviting involvement. This has the potential to initiate a new era in Australia's advancement.

In his recent article (The Australian, Oct 24, 15 Malcolm Turnbull’s positivity can transform Australian politics ) Paul Kelly suggests Turnbull's four rules of new politics; -
  • Be flexible and willing to change any policy that has failed.
  • Avoid setting policy straight-jackets which limit your future decisions. Do not fall into the traps set by journalists with their rule-in, rule out questions. 
  • Do not confuse the ends with the means. Focus on the ends and adjust the means when necessary.
  • Accept the limitations of what governments can do. Government acts as a catalyst for enabling and motivating the nations resources to achieve common goals.
We are yet to see how this pans out, but it is an inviting future, and if achieved, well worthy of the declaration; "Long Live the King!".

Friday 23 October 2015

Not so Super

Superannuation oft lauded as the savior of the working man, is also touted the savior of our welfare state. No wonder it is called 'super'.

What could be better than a system that encourages personal investment for one's autumn years and eases the State's welfare burden to boot. Instead of relying on an ever more encumbered public purse, the working man could look forward to years of idle leisure basking in the glow of self reliance. Indeed Super was introduced with these two objectives in mind.

Like many reforms it has undergone significant tweaking since its inception in 1992 by a forward looking Keating government. Not surprisingly, when Australia is meeting economic headwinds, governments facing an 'entitled' electorate are once again looking closely at superannuation. Some argue that the taxation foregone on Super contributions does not fall equitably across the workforce and should be re-balanced ( see for example ANZ chief economist Warren Hogan says superannuation tax breaks for wealthy too generous). Others point out that the effective tax on super contributions is greater than marginal tax rates and any more 'tweaking' would only further undermine confidence in the system (see National Reform Summit: super tax changes need proper analysis).

I don't propose to tackle these arguments today.  My question is simply,"Is it working?"
Will their contributions to super over their working life free an average worker from relying on an aged pension and as a result will the burden on the state be reduced?

We have a problem..

The Government's recent National Commission of Audit looked at the trends in welfare expenditure to 2050. The graph below is taken from the report and summarizes the result.  

The proportion of those who by their age are eligible for the aged pension, who end up receiving the full aged pension decreases, but at the same time the number of persons receiving a part pension increases. The overall result is that the number of people who can live off their super does not change despite having paid upwards of 10% of their wage into super throughout their lives.

Mmm. Doesn't sound like Super is working like it was meant to.

But worse still; -

"The 2010 Inter-generational Report (Australian Government, 2010a) projected that expenditure on age-related pension payments would increase from around 2.7 per cent to around 3.9 per cent of GDP by 2050." (quote taken from National Commission of Audit)

So by 2050; -
  • the same proportion of the workforce will be on pensions as there are today
  • Government expenditure on pensions is expected to increase by over 40%
It seems our Super system is not meeting its two objectives. It is neither increasing the number of workers living on their own savings, nor is the burden on the state being reduced.

The unexpected conclusion is unavoidable, our super is not working as intended.

Tweaking is definitely required. However I will look at that topic another day.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Seeking a fair GHG reduction target - Part 4: Propositions for consensus

With the upcoming Paris conference on Climate Change (CC) nations are starting to announce their reduction targets for the coming decade. Admittedly these are only starting positions as the conference invariably raises issues forcing compromises from most countries.

The selection of a reduction target is always controversial. Passionate CC adherents will always push for greater commitments from their, and indeed every, country. More conservative proponents will put greater emphasis on compliance costs, especially in light of current economic conditions.

This article is the fourth in this series "Seeking a fair GHG target". From the outset our objective has been to find a process for setting equitable Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction targets that would receive widespread acceptance.

In our previous posts...

In this journey we have come a long way.

In part 1 we recognized the core problems in reaching a target;-
  • CC affects every country but the impact is not borne equally by all countries. Smaller Pacific islands face CC catastrophe while land-locked countries in temperate zones will have little direct impact.  Compare, for example, the impact on the Maldives to the impact on Switzerland.
  • The successful achievement of a global reduction target is totally dependent on the largest emitters. If China and US don't play ball, efforts by the rest of the world come to naught.
  • The costs of reducing GHG emissions also varies by country. For developed countries it may represent a few percentage points off their GDP, whereas for developing countries, like India and China, it can mean a large proportion of their population remains in poverty for a longer period.
  • CC is a zero sum game. If the total GHG reduction is sufficient to meet the agreed target (limiting global temperature rise to less than 2C degrees by the turn of the century), then if one country commits more towards the mitigation then another country can commit less without affecting the outcome. This effectively rewards laggards.
In part 2 we looked at Reduction Target statements and found that the common measures used in these do not reflect a country's contribution to climate change.

The most commonly used measures are misleading in several ways;
  • By using Production Emissions, ignoring a country's imports and exports, they overstate the contribution to global warming of producing countries (eg China), while understating the contributions of consuming countries (eg most countries in Western Europe). 
  • By using Gross Emissions, adjusted for the change in land use only, instead of Net Emissions, which account for all forestry absorption, they overstate the contribution of countries that have extensive forested areas (eg Canada, Australia) and understate the contribution of smaller industrialized countries which have largely deforested (eg many countries in Europe). 
  • By using per annum figures as opposed to cumulative figures they understate the very significant contribution to global warming of countries which industrialized decades ago, and overstate the contributions of developing countries which are now or only recently going through industrialization. 
And in part 3 we looked at how the world ranking of countries changed as we took into account the shortcomings of the most commonly used measures.

For example the two graphs below show the ranking for the top 10 GHG emitters based on annual GHG emission rates and the ranking of the top 10 emitters based on total emissions (since 1850), respectively.

Clearly, the ranking of countries varies greatly depending on the measure used. 

In short, consensus on reduction targets cannot be reached if measures are used that do not correctly reflect a country's contribution to CC.

In this fourth post we look at the essence of consensus and identify four propositions that will ensure consensus on reduction targets.

The essence of consensus

What is the essence of consensus when it comes to CC? 

There have been many disputes between countries with regard to their reduction targets, but they break down to the following three issues; -

  • There is disagreement on each country's contribution to CC 
  • Developed countries have already benefitted from 'free emissions' to achieve better living standards for their people.  Developing countries want their share of 'free emissions' so their people can achieve higher living standards.
  • the cost burden of addressing climate change can fall on poorer developing countries that have contributed little to the problem. They want compensation from those who caused the problem.
These are all valid arguments and consensus will not be achieved unless each of them is addressed in a way that is seen to be equitable.

Lets look at each of these and set some guidelines for addressing them.

Propositions for consensus on responsibility for CC

Climate change is just one symptom of humans utilizing resources at a greater rate than they are being replenished. For any advanced society to survive over millennia, they have to replenish all resources they use. This applies not only to the air we breathe but equally for all other resources we use; water quality, food supplies, the diversity of our ecology.

The basic tenet of sustainability requires that if we have emitted GHGs to the environment greater than nature will recycle, we must remove them. Moreover every country has an equal responsibility to remove their own excess emissions.

This argument leads us to the first proposition for creating reduction targets; -

1. Each country has to mitigate their own contribution to CC.

While this proposition makes a clear obligation as to the extent of mitigation effort, it does not provide a timetable. 

The timetable is determined by the stated, and generally accepted, goal of limiting global temperature increase to less than 2C by the turn of the century. We will revisit this limit and what it means for calculating the reductions for each country in due course. For now, however, we encapsulate this global warming limit in proposition 2;-

2. If global emissions are projected to produce global warming beyond the 2C target, then all countries have to reduce their emissions in the same proportion that they contributed to CC.
These two propositions set the core rules for determining how much each country has to reduce their emissions, and when. However there are two adjustments to these rules.

Propositions for consensus on 'free emissions'

No doubt the freedom to emit GHG enjoyed by the now developed world has contributed to their
standard of living. Countries now undergoing industrialization, China, India, Brazil, and countries that have not even commenced this path, most of Africa, cannot be denied the right to the same level of 'free emissions' to enhance their standard of living.
To compensate these 'developing countries' we have proposition 3; -

3. Developing countries are allowed a proportionate quota of 'free emissions'.

The application of proposition 3 is not straight-forward. Who qualifies, what is the quota, when does it apply, and when does it cease, are all valid questions we will have to address in the future. For the present it is sufficient to note that proposition 3 fully compensates developing countries with the same level of free emissions that have been enjoyed by countries that undertook industrialization some time ago.

Proposition for consensus on sharing the cost of remediation

Some smaller Pacific nations, face CC catastrophe. They validly argue they have not contributed to the problem yet the consequences fall on their country disproportionately.

It is only fair that those countries which have contributed most to CC should fund remediation.
While it may be possible to identify which countries are responsible and the extent to which they are responsible for CC to date, it is much more difficult to re-mediate the problem, and even whether remediation is possible. For example how do you stop the submersion of some pacific islands if/when CC causes sea levels to rise.

I have no answer other than to offer financial compensation. Those countries which caused it should pay compensation to those who have been damaged.

This leads us to proposition 4.

4. Countries which face the burden of climate change have to be compensated by those who caused it.

In practice this requires the establishment of a CC Compensation Fund on which countries facing the cost of CC can claim. The total amount to be contributed to the fund would be determined by how much victim countries can justify are their real costs. No doubt this can be problematic, but I will leave the justification to actuaries and the resolutions to judges. The amount contributed should be based on each country's contribution to CC to date.

Note that this contribution should be re-calculated periodically, so that as countries continue to pollute their contribution to the CC compensation fund should be adjusted.

Putting it together

Agreement on any issue can only be achieved if all parties feel their point of view has been considered and addressed. The core issues of the climate change debate have been identified and we have identified four propositions which address these three concerns.

The propositions are ; 

1. Each country has to mitigate their own contribution to CC.

2. If global emissions are projected to produce global warming beyond the 2C degree target, then all countries have to reduce their emissions in the same proportion that they contributed to CC.

3. Developing countries are allowed a proportionate quota of 'free emissions'.

4. Countries which face the burden of climate change have to be compensated by those who caused it.

In the next part of this series we will use these four propositions to derive a set of rules what can be used to calculate equitable reduction targets.

Monday 19 October 2015

Is Shorten standing up for workers?

Repeatedly under intense media fire for his questionable deals Shorten has defended himself by claiming "I have spent my whole life standing up for workers" (Insiders 21 Jun 15 )

Can this be true?

Especially in light of the widespread evidence that confirms Shorten negotiated deals and side deals that left everyday workers 'worse off' while the Union and he personally were 'better off'.

Just look at some of the articles ; -

Can Shorten still be correct when he says he has always served in workers' interests?

Mmm.  In an Alice-In-Wonderland world one could argue that the Union is more important than the worker. That the prosperity and longevity of the Union, the fair-minded, diligent advocate fighting for workers rights, is paramount. Without them, the poor worker would be worse off. Even if the worker has to sacrifice some of his hard earned wage, it is justified because it will ensure that he can be protected now and in the future by a stable, prosperous Union organisation. The justification is even greater if the Union manages to project a disproportionate influence on the government of the day, and even succeeds in having ex Union officials, in large numbers, elected to parliament. This gives the worker a seat at the table, a part of the decision making process. So surely the worker must be better off.

Indeed, Mr Shorten's argument would go something like that.

If you believe that, you can believe he is telling the truth. But can you?

Sunday 18 October 2015

10 rules to raise the standard of professional journailsm

In many earlier posts I have written about our media, highlighting bias, inappropriate priorities and the poor attitudes of journalists always looking for gotcha moments (see Media posts ).  The posts provide many examples of these failures so I won't go through them again.

A major contributor to these failures is the ever-increasing competition by a voracious media for engaged and loyal audiences. Journalists and news commentators adopt attitudes aligned with their audience in order to garner a following. This in turn drives the selection of the stories they cover, the arguments/questions they raise and their attitude in interviews.

Given journalists have these 'negative' drivers, management must be ever more proactive to ensure standards are maintained, or preferably raised. They can do this by setting clear editorial guidelines, and ensuring all journalists know are fully informed and expected to follow them. Moreover compliance should be monitored and any failures penalized.

This post would not be complete without at least a suggested list of Editorial Guidelines. My suggestions are based on the editorial guidelines for the highly professional PBS Newshour. (see Another Chapter Begins for Newshour)

10 rules for professional journalists

  1. Do not report anything you cannot defend.
  2. Cover, write, and present every story with the care you would want if the story were about you.
  3. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
  4. Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as you believe yourself to be.
  5. Assume the same about all people on whom you report.
  6. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
  7. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything
  8. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions.
  9. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
  10. Remember you are NOT in the entertainment business.
Even if followed rigorously these rules may not guarantee audiences, but would certainly raise the standards of news commentary.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Are secret Union deals simply extortion?

The TURC sittings this week have hardly raised a murmur in our 'distracted' press. I write 'distracted' but many other adjectives, unprofessional, feckless, irresponsible, incompetent, may be more suitable.

The statements of Thiess employees could be described as nothing less than bombshells casting asunder all of Bill Shorten's past testimony and the media's dismissal of smoking guns. What is more smoking than direct affirmation that the special 'side deals' were negotiated by Bill Shorten as secretary of the Victorian branch of the AWU. Deals whereby Thiess would make secret payments of large sums to the Union in exchange for industrial peace. 

It is all there. Secret payments for sham invoices for services which were never provided. Sham invoices paid in full paid by Thiess and money received by the AWU. Why was Thiess paying the AWU ? They were buying industrial peace. No doubt had the company not paid they believed they would have suffered industrial disruption. 

Lets check the definition of extortion and protection racquet; - 

Extortion is a criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion. It is sometimes euphemistically referred to as a "protection racket" since the racketeers often phrase their demands as payment for "protection" from (real or hypothetical) threats from unspecified other parties.  


Mmm. Do you see any similarity with the apparent modus operandum of the AWU in their deal with Thiess? It seems the Union acts like common racketeers obtaining money in exchange for providing 'protection' from industrial action, by, no doubt, its own members. This smells awfully like extortion!

Make no mistake this payment to the Union is in effect a benefit to the Union bosses, who use these fraudulent funds either for advancing their Union as it competes for members against other Unions, or for, let's call it 'private purposes'. Such as those derived, for example by the likes of Williamson, Thompson, Jackson and let me include Shorten.

A Union should never accept employer payments

There is a legitimate role for Unions in working on behalf of their members to improve working conditions, but when a Union accepts any payment directly from an employer in any form it is not just a 'conflict of interest', it is a crime. It is akin to 'demanding money with menaces', it is eliciting a bribe, it is extortion.

Where is the media?

The testimony by employers on the AWU fraud has been reported in the print media.

However most surprisingly; for much of this week, the commentariat seems to have been on holidays! Except for Skynews' Paul Murray Live, discussion or even mention of the TURC, or the AWU, has been strangely absent from news bulletins and political programs. I may have missed some, but I cannot recall any reference to what should be a politically explosive issue on any of the ABC's news bulletins or indeed AM, PM or 730 programs. Astoundingly selective reporting!

Even when mentioned, there is a tendency for the media to regard this type of practice as an occasional slip up of an individual Union or individual Unionist. However evidence at the TURC seems to indicate otherwise. We have seen these types of criminal 'deals' at the CFMEU, the HSU, and now at the AWU. It is very likely a widespread prctice.

It seems that most of our media media has avoided calling the Union's role in accepting direct payments from employers a crime. This is despite the clear evidence to the contrary. Is the media shying away from reporting on a problem whose magnitude and political impact is potentially catastrophic to one of our leading political parties? You can draw your own conclusion. For me, I believe we have a significant problem. Not only do we have rampant extortion in operation within our industrial relations system, but by failing to report on it without fear or favour, our media seem to find it acceptable!

Copyright(C)2015 Grappy's Soap Box, all rights reserved

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Happy Twitterversary

A few weeks ago I received a tweet reminding me that I had been a tweeter for a full year. My how time flies. From first baby steps with simply reading the tweets, to the occasional Favorite or Retweet, to today, with some hundreds of followers and similar followings, and an active but not hectic tweet rate, it has been a gradual journey. After a year I feel 'somewhat' more comfortable with this new medium, but what do I think of it?  Perhaps it is worth a look.

Is Twitter Good or Bad?

Is Twitter a great addition to our social discourse? Is it a force for good, encouraging freer exchange of information leading to a gradual accommodation of opposing views? Or is it the opposite? A medium that amplifies discontent and transforms a like-minded rabble into a lynch mob to drown out any who dare oppose its view. Is it a force for evil, that more likely polarizes than accommodates, and engenders bitterness and anger in its adherents.

I think it is both.

Where Twitter is bad

"Twitter acts as an amplifier"
My experience has been very mixed. There is a natural tendency for a Tweeter to try to evoke some sort of response initially from 'anyone out there' and later from their followers, or indeed those following some hashtag. This leads to the creation of tweets that are noticed. To be noticed they tend to be aligned with followers' views, and have to be 'louder' than the sea of tweets in which they compete. In short Tweeters are screaming for attention with increasingly strident declarations of their point of view, and ever more tightly aligned with the 'expected' view of their anonymous mob.

"Twitter acts as a polariser"
The second tendency is to call out anyone who insinuates themselves into their Twitter-stream with an opposing view. Indeed if you voice a view that goes against the trend in your hashtag, the mob turns nasty, and you are attacked. Attacks come in several forms;-
  • Deflection and abuse - the Tweeter does not respond to the issue but changes the subject and typically turns to personal abuse
  • The Tweet-storm - this form is to send a tweet on-topic and with relevant points, but then not wait till the opponent responds but to send another tweet and another and another. It basically says "I dont care what you have to say, my view is right".
  • The lynch mob - Finally we have the lynch mob. In this form it takes one tweeter to point out that for some reason "this guy doesn't see eye to eye with us". Of course his followers see this, but often they will specifically copy in some close disciples. This initiates the tweet cascade with members of the mob all-in with aggressive and offensive tweets, and of course re-tweeting and favourite-ing each other.
I can only say I have experienced each one of these forms and felt sufficiently chastened to at least take some care when phrasing a tweet which I knew was 'against the grain'. Yes, I am a wuss.

"Twitter discourages direct interaction with those with opposing views"
The net effect is to limit rational debate. Tweeters generally do not engage with those with opposing views and simply ignore them. The result is that different viewpoints are not debated, rather twitter followers entrench and amplify their followers' existing views.

Where Twitter is good

"Twitter disseminated information faster than all alternatives"
Twitter is not all bad. On the contrary, when it comes to dispersing information quickly, it beats all alternatives. News feeds are passed instantly to their followers who re-tweet and pass them on in a cascade. Moreover Twitter is present in the murkiest corners of the world bringing the torch of visibility on what could be nefarious dealings. 

As a means for transferring factual information it excels.

"Twitter empowers individuals to engage with their society"
Twitter also allows people to readily engage and feel involved with their society. You can easily directly tweet those who are otherwise usually out of reach, and indeed they can respond if they wish. This is a great equalizer, empowering the individual.

"Twitter brings like-minded people together"
Finally it does provide a means whereby remote individuals can feel connected with others who share similar views. This is perhaps the single greatest benefit of Twitter and one which will ensure its longevity.

Communication drives modern society. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all the social media bring heretofore impossible levels of connection between people otherwise vastly separated by distance and culture. In a complex and dangerous world this communication encourages cohesion and counteracts the many challenges that drive communities apart. Twitter's role in encouraging contact and communication is the overriding benefit that compensates for its problems.

Thursday 1 October 2015

What the heck is Thorium?

Thorium is widely mooted as a safe and clean energy source with the potential to power our world. A one-stop solution to all our energy needs for thousands of years into the future.  Unlimited clean, low cost energy that could transform life on earth into the idealistic future of many a science fiction novel of yesteryear. Pretty wild claims.! Even if only partly true Thorium deserves our interest.

A colleague recently sent me some videos on Thorium and re-kindled my interest. So I thought I should revisit the subject.

I understand this subject can get technical very quickly,. however in this post I will only present a 'helicopter' view omitting as much technical detail as possible. The references section provides some links to further material for those interested.

Image source

So what the heck is Thorium and why is it important?

Thorium is; -
  • a relatively abundant element in the earth's crust, similar to that of Lead and much more abundant than Uranium
  • relatively heavy, about the same weight as Lead, a 10 cm cube would weigh 11Kg
  • naturally weakly radioactive. It decays very slowly with a half life of ~14 billion years, which is around the age of the universe. You can quite safely hold Thorium in your bare hands without any chance of radiation damage. This is because of its slow decay and also because its mode of decay is by the emission of Alpha particles which do not penetrate skin. Of course it is a different matter if you ingest it, when it can do damage
  • an alternative fuel to power nuclear power stations. However unlike Uranium it is not 'fissile' ie it does not naturally undergo 'fission' nor form a chain reaction. Consequently it is not suitable for atom bombs. 

Oh, no! nuclear energy!

Following the relatively recent Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy has once again been viewed with suspicion. This is despite the world's need for alternatives to fossil fuels.

For nuclear power advocates it is unfortunate that we can recall every nuclear disaster even decades after the events (Three mile island, Chernobyl and Fukushima) while we ignore the all too regular disasters in coal mines. That is not to say that nuclear energy should be embraced without taking account of both its safety issues and the problem of nuclear waste.

Lets take another look at nuclear power

Given the need for 'Green' base-load energy sources, we should not rule out nuclear energy without properly evaluating its benefits and its problems.

So lets look at some observations regarding our energy options;
Total Life-Cycle Costs for Electricity, normalized to capacity factor, life-span and amount of energy produced. Costs include construction, operation and maintenance (O&M), fuel, and decommissioning. Costs do not include electrical grid upgrade, transportation issues, connectivity of renewables and buffering of their intermittency by rapid cycling of fossil fuel plants as presently practiced in this country, and externalities such as any carbon-tax, pollution and health care costs associated with energy production and use. Also, these costs are not levelized but are actual direct costs. Once actual costs are known, better long-term planning can be done and some levelizing factors can be wisely shaped to affect a more desirable energy mix.

The benefits of nuclear power
  • the graphic above shows that nuclear energy is second only to Hydro as the lowest cost producer of energy (Ref[2])
  • There are over 435 commercial nuclear power reactors operable in 31 countries, with over 375,000 MWe of total capacity. About 70 more reactors are under construction. (Ref[1])
  • Much of the developed world uses nuclear energy for a significant proportion of its energy needs ranging from 15% for Germany to 75% for France. Worldwide nuclear provides ~11% of the world's electricity as continuous, reliable base-load power, without carbon dioxide emissions.(Ref[1])
  • 56 countries operate a total of about 240 research reactors and a further 180 nuclear reactors power some 140 ships and submarines.(Ref([1])
  • All energy generation options have risks and nuclear had the lowest fatalities when compared with fossil fuel generation and hydro, within the period 1969-2000. (see Table below )

The problems with nuclear power

The accident statistics quoted above were before the Fukishima disaster which arguably claimed 1200 lives, although some claim none (see Ref [6]). This single incident has severely damaged the reputation of nuclear power.  There is considerable debate on the causes of the Fukishima accident; how it could have been avoided, why building the reactors near a geologically active site was precarious, the reactor design was old, and so on. No doubt some of these are valid arguments but it points to some serious concerns with conventional nuclear power.

The key problems of Uranium based nuclear power are; -
  • Safety - Uranium based, Light Water Reactors (the most common design) are complex structures and while accidents are few, the consequences of any accident are great. There is an on-going small risk of very serious accidents.
  • Nuclear Waste - Uranium reactors produce nuclear waste in large volumes. Their waste products have very long life times and storing them safely is a problem which lasts for millennia
  • Limited Supply - The supply of Uranium is limited. At current usage rates and using only currently available technologies, supply would last about 230 years. If however its use was increased to some 50% of World energy, it would only be a stop-gap energy source lasting less than 50 years (Ref 4)
  • Proliferation - all Uranium based reactors produce highly radioactive 'waste' products that can be used for various Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), such as atomic bombs and in high radiation 'dirty bombs'.
Each of these issues needs to be recognised and addressed before adopting a nuclear power option to a country's energy mix. Over the past 5 decades many countries have chosen to go nuclear, accepting the risks but deciding that they were offset by the benefits of low cost energy. Many other countries, perhaps without the same energy needs, have stayed on the sidelines. 

Given the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, however, many countries are revisiting the nuclear option, and in the absence of technological breakthroughs in renewables, will without doubt build more reactors.

Back to Thorium

So is Thorium a better nuclear option than Uranium and if so why?

Let's look at the four key downsides of Uranium based nuclear power and see how they apply to Thorium reactors.


In order to appreciate the difference between Uranium and Thorium based reactors, we would need to take a look at reactor design.  However in keeping with my promise to keep this post as non-technical as possible, I have tabulated the main differences between the most common Uranium based reactors the Light Water Reactor (LWR) and the most commonly Thorium reactor design, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). (To make things confusing LFTR is often called the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), but I will stick to LFTR here). For further reading please visit the references, especially the video links.

Uranium LWR Thorium LFTR
Solid Fuel Liquid Fuel
Once started reactor continues operation Needs constant flow of new fuel to keep the reactor operating
Moderator and coolant to keep temperature under control reduce fuel to reduce temperature
Operates under pressure Operates at normal atmospheric pressure
In case of accident  radioactive gases are released under pressure into the containment vessel in case of accident fuel supply stops the reactor, no explosion as the reactor is not under pressure
In case of accident, coolant towers release large volumes of water to cool the reactor by flooding the fuel rods. In case of accident reactor stops and liquid fuel flows into containers

In particular LFTR has built-in safety because; -
  • operating at low pressure there is no explosion even if there were any incident damaging the reactor.
  • Because Fuel has to be continuously added to keep the reactor operating, any incident will cut off fuel and the reactor stops.
  • Because the fuel is liquid at high temperature, once the reactor has used its fuel it cools down and solidifies. All radioactive material is encased.
  • If overheating occurs for any reason a safety plug is opened and the liquid fuel drains into special purpose containers.

A Thorium LFTR reactor is much safer than the Uranium based reactors.


Lets look at waste products, these occur both when mining the Uranium or Thorium and resulting from the operation of the reactors.

The graphic below compares the waste generated in the Uranium cycle to that of the Thorium cylce.

For the same energy output the amount of waste with Thorium fuel is orders of magnitude less than with Uranium. 

Equally importantly lets look at the type of waste products produced. We know one of the critical issues with Uranium reactor waste is that the waste products remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

The graph below compares the wast products from Uranium and Thorium reactors

Uranium reactor waste PWR uranium actinides have radioactivity 1000 times greater than the natural Uranium ore and remain above the natural background for a million years. Not so with Thorium , the actinide wastes from LFTR are perhaps 10 x as radioactive as background Uranium ore when created but decay rapidly within a few hundred years.

So Thorium once again has it all over Uranium when it comes to waste;
  • Thorium produces much less waste during mining
  • LFTR produces much less waste through it operation
  • The LFTR wastes produced are less radioactive and short lived.


Thorium is naturally much more abundant than Uranium (approx 4 x) but when compared to the abundance of Uranium 235 which is required for nuclear energy, Thorium's abundance is very much greater (see graphic below.)

The Thorium nuclear cycle is 200x as efficient as Uranium nuclear cycle. This is because in LWR only a small percentage (~5%) of the Uranium can be fully used as the fission products are embedded into the solid fuel rods. By absorbing neutrons these slow the reactor and eventually make the fuel rod unusable.   However in a LFTR because the fuel is a liquid, fission products are continuously removed from the fuel allowing all the fuel to be fully used. It is this process of removing waste from the fuel that is key to the efficiency of LFTR. It is also the reason LFTR generates less waste and less long-lived waste. As a result just 5000 tonnes of Thorium are required to generate all the energy currently used in the world in a year.

Image source http://drmnietop.com/

The above graphic shows the estimated availability and distribution of Thorium in the world.
Given a total availability of some 6 million tonnes, there is enough Thorium on earth to power our civilisation for over a 1000 years. After this, there is more Thorium all around us, on Mars, the Moon and Venus.


Perhaps the most dominant argument against nuclear power has been the threat of proliferation. Nuclear power generates weapons grade Uranium and Plutonium which can be used for various WMDs.

Thorium is not naturally suitable for nuclear weapons. Indeed if it were it would have been used extensively, as it is much more abundant than Uranium. Moreover given the efficiency of the LFTR there are very few waste products and NO Plutonium. Hence Thorium poses minimal risk with regard to nuclear proliferation.

Summing up

Nuclear power can generate base-load power without CO2 emissions at low cost.

However Nuclear power suffers from; -
  • safety risks
  • proliferation of materials which can be used in WMDs
  • generation of high volumes of long lived highly radioactive waste
  • supply is limited   

Thorium nuclear power can also generate base-load power without CO2 emissions at even lower cost than Uranium based nuclear power.

Moreover the Thorium LFTR design addresses all the downsides of Uranium reactors.

Thorium LFTR ;-
  • is relatively safe
  • generates much lower volumes of waste, with lower radiation and shorter life
  • safe from proliferation as waste is limited and NO Plutonium is produced
  • the supply is abundant and projected to last >1000 years.
For all these reasons Thorium seems to measure up to the hype. It holds the promise of clean low cost energy for an energy hungry world.


1. Nuclear power in the world today, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Nuclear-Power-in-the-World-Today/

2. The naked cost of energy - http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/06/15/the-naked-cost-of-energy-stripping-away-financing-and-subsidies/

3. Comparing energy risks - http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/reports/2010/nea6862-comparing-risks.pdf

4. How long will global uranium last? - http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last/

5. Videos on Thorium Nuclear

6. When radiation isn't the real risk - http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/22/science/when-radiation-isnt-the-real-risk.html